The Aftermath - Part 3

It feels odd to discover at this age and this stage in my life what it is like to share the ordinary details of my domestic life with my father. There was never a need to do this when my mother was alive. We had a WhatsApp group, “Noor Ladies Only,” that documented the everyday travails of three young women navigating their lives and kitchens in different parts of the world, peppered by their beautiful mother’s selfies. When I look back through that group chat, I feel very strongly that it is a powerful time capsule, capable of taking me back to her, the Urdu script of her messages showing her hope, her resolve to fight the disease that was slowly colonizing her body, her devotion to her family. The group is silent now. We are trying to fill the silence with noise in “Noor Siblings Only,” “Noor Sisters Only,” and “The Noors – Papa & Kids.” It’s the last group that surprises me most often because of the obvious need for its existence and the fact that this need was felt most acutely only after my mother’s death.

It never occurred to us to have a space just with our father when our mother was with us. When Mama was alive, we had a whole-family WhatsApp group, too, but no one ever used it. Once a year, someone would send a message for Eid, and then we would all forget about it. Strangely, sometimes I feel that in dying, our mother propelled us towards our father. Perhaps the force of love she always held tight to her chest was set free upon her children, and we, drowning in our despair came up for air and held on to our father. Our father, in his particular way, allowed himself to be pulled by the current while holding our heads above water. He, being the father that he is, saved his children from drowning without making a sound.

I don’t know what we gave back to him – perhaps something that should have been his for years already. An openness. An acceptance. A love that does not have qualifiers, complaints, or expectations – the kind of love my mother gave to him (and us). It is strange to love my father so fiercely again at 32, like the way I used to love him at 12 – with a single-minded devotion, with unquestioning respect, with a grateful sense of pride for all he had achieved in his life, with admiration for his life-long struggle to rise above his circumstances, to give his family a secure future, to fight fate, to pour himself into his art. How fascinating this man is – I realize – something my mother always said, but I never saw. “I find him admirable,” she would say. “He fascinates me. There isn’t a man I have met in my life who is quite like him.” I shrugged off her comments. Sometimes I rolled my eyes at her. “You’re hopeless, Mama."

But I see it now – it descends upon me like an epiphany, the meaning of my mother’s words. He inspires fascination and admiration in me, too. I see why I am the way I am – hungry for more, for lofty goals, for new avenues to prove myself, to make a difference and a positive impact. I have always been his daughter, but now I see how alike we really are. It took me a long time to purposefully forget this fact, and its resurfaced knowledge crashes upon me with a blunt indifferent pain. Who is my father and why was my mother so devoted to him until her last breath? Isn’t is utterly fascinating, the story of this young orphan, who fought abject poverty and his slated fate to be completely mediocre and forgettable, and instead achieved fame, fortune, and the highest civilian honor of his nation -- all because he dared to believe that he could do something extraordinary in life and then went on to demonstrate this belief in his art. My parents are those rare people who fed their family from their art. They loved what they did for a living, and for a while, they did it together. I, like my father, have always run towards what I love, tried to find contentment in my work, but have always been riddled with this certainty that there is more I could be doing, there is a lot more work to do. And so, like him, I keep searching.

My father, now 66, rises early, does not believe in vacation, and works constantly. When he is not working on his projects, he is working around the house. He likes to work with his hands on everything from assembling furniture to cooking. In our WhatApp group, “The Noors – Papa & Kids,” he sent pictures of turnip curry he cooked one afternoon in response to the culinary creations of his three girls and the street food adventures of his son. The frame was artistically composed in his signature style: the food presented in a clear serving dish, a pomegranate, an apple, and a grapefruit in a bowl next to it, a small box of milk, two rotis. The caption reads: “Made shaljam for my Rukhsana today and said a prayer for her. I hope the aroma of this effort reaches her. Ameen.”

This is how we live every day after her – a little high, a little low. Always we find each other, these five wandering souls – the Noor Papa and his kids.

The Aftermath - Part 2

Some days, it becomes too much to bear. How can we carry this vast grief inside us and not be overcome by it? Those are brutal days. Whatever this thing is, this living, writhing, evolving thing takes over every sense and we, her children, break apart. Why did she have to go? Why did this have to happen? Why couldn't we have more time? Inconsequential, useless, ridiculous questions -- I reflect in moments of collectedness -- but in the throes of this emotional downdraft, they become our combined focus: why, why, why, why. It's endless and dark and lonely, this strange motherless realm of our lives. 

Being a child of writers, I often try to contain it in my writing. I tell my friends, "I have so much to say about this." But the truth is, I haven't yet figured out how to morph this state of mind and body into words. I am unable to describe the exact feeling of falling I experience on a routine basis when I wake up from a dream in which she was with me. A perpetual free-fall. It's like cutting through a whirlpool of air, limbs heavy and resistant to movement, the body forgetting to breathe, forgetting to think, forgetting to even look for an anchor, remembering only this: no mama, no mama, no mama.

Who was this woman, my friend, my mother, who taught me so many lessons in her life, but strangely, even more lessons in her death? It is the most surreal and unnerving experience to realize that your mother in her death has taught you the fundamentals of love. To someone who is as jaded and pragmatic as me, there is an actual movement of resistance that is planned, developed, and implemented by the brain without the slightest hesitancy. But there it is, plain for anyone who cares to see. My mother in her life and in her death imparted only love. It will take me years and perhaps my whole life to fully understand the extent of her capacity to love, and similarly, her unexpressed need to be loved in return. We used to have long, deep, meaningful conversations. I was a friend to her, and she to me. I asked her probing questions. How did you feel when such and such happened? What was your physiological response? Did you cry? What was the dominant emotion? Why do you care so much for people? What do you look for in a person? She was forthcoming in her responses. Her answers: Deeply shaken and hurt; my heart sank; yes, buckets; a sense of betrayal; because I am made this way and I believe people are fundamentally good rather than bad; honesty. And yet, today I realize that maybe I didn't know her completely after all. Maybe I was asking the wrong questions. Maybe I was just peeling away at the surface, and she like always, was letting me have my way.

Where are you now when I have so many more questions, I whisper into the still, empty air. I drive over the Dumbarton bridge to and from work in a strange communion with all the other lonely travelers around me. Who knows about the sea of grief surging within each person's shallow chest? I feel we are all sharers of each other's private heartbreak as we snake our way across the bridge over the bay that has swelled with recent rains. I cry most freely in the car over this bridge, the water steely blue and tranquil under the grey portentous sky, cyclists in their neon vests and helmets whizzing by the rush hour traffic, and all these people, isolated like me, caught in the current of their thoughts.

The Aftermath

On January 12, when I found out my mother had died, before she was declared dead by the emergency room doctors, before even the paramedics said there was no pulse, my immediate inclination was to deny it -- vehemently, violently. “Shut up and stop being an idiot!” I told my sister who had called from just a few towns north of me in California to tell me that our mother had collapsed suddenly in her home in Lahore, Pakistan. “I just spoke to her 15 minutes ago. She’s fine. You’re being dramatic,” I said coldly, intending to hurt her for her stupidity as big sisters are wont to do. My sister, God bless her, was surprisingly calm in a moment that can only be described as surreal. “I am not being dramatic. I am clam. Mama has collapsed. They are calling the paramedics. Ainee, are you there? Are you listening? Ainee, she’s gone, right? She’s gone.” It was the oddest sensation. I felt shut in, closed off. I went back to folding laundry, painstakingly, precisely, making neat piles as I eventually heard from the paramedics, then the emergency room doctor, and finally in the guttural, unbelieving voice of my brother that my mother was indeed no more. “Just get here, Ainee,” said my brother. “Just get here now!” As he was hanging up the phone, I heard him yelling at someone, “I am her son! I am her son!”

I didn’t break down until I sat at Dubai International Airport, waiting for my husband to sort out our 11-hour stay at the airport hotel. I was exhausted from our 16-hour flight from San Francisco, Jahan was dozing in my lap, and I was scrolling through Facebook, which had erupted with various notes, messages, and official and unofficial obituaries. And yet, it was a simple post that broke through the wave of detachment I was riding. My brother had posted an update to his friends, “My mother passed away. Will give you updates ASAP. Please pray.” Here was my 19-year-old brother living through an event that will certainly be one of the most harrowing of his lifetime, but to go through such a heartbreak so early, to bear this burden at such a young age -- how cruel, how unfair! And it was then that I thought of the unfairness of my mother’s death as it pertained to me -- how I had been cheated out of more time with her. Who, in this big vicious world, will love me now as she loved me? How lonesome and isolated I felt at that teeming airport with my own daughter safe in her mother’s lap still having the luxury to dream.

I wrote a lot about grief when I was writing regularly. Having read some of my older posts, I can tell that my anecdotal observations were not far from the truth. It hits you in waves, that part is true. It is harsh, unforgiving, brutal. What I didn’t appreciate was the power it imparts, like a vessel you harness to gain enough strength to kiss your mother’s cold, cold face, her soft eyelids, her shining forehead, her lips spread in a smile. You break and build yourself up again with every touch, you break and come together, break and come together until you are forever marked by your loss, marked by this gaping absence. There is a nakedness in this grief, the sense of being flayed open, laid bare for the world to see.

I am deeply uncomfortable with the lack of privacy that surrounds bereavement -- the way the family surrounds their departed loved one, gazing at their still faces, everyone around them wanting to offer comfort, to condole, to let them know how sorry they are, when all a daughter or a son would ever want at a time like this is to keep looking on at their parent’s face, to give them one more, just one more kiss, to touch their cheek, to say sorry, to say “I love you” over and over, and to finally, painfully, forcibly say good bye. When I reached the open verandah of Adil Hospital, Lahore, where some of the last rites were to be performed for my mother, I asked the other mourners, mostly other family members, to give me and my siblings a few moments alone with my mother. I wanted to be allowed the dignity to mourn in an enclosure of love and loss that is only shared by the four of us, her bereaved children. In these private moments, I allowed myself to be her baby, her first-born thirty-two year old daughter who is a mother herself, but still at the very core of my identity and existence, her baby. The four of us will remember these precious minutes as our deeply private and shared experience of heartbreak. And there is nothing more to be said about that.

It will take us the rest of our lives to make sense of this cruelty. Why, in the midst of such hope with her cancer shrinking and her health improving, did she have to be yanked away from us so suddenly; how could she simply cease to breathe when fifteen minutes before she was dozing and sleepily talking to her daughter and granddaughter; what could have caused such an absolute separation in a matter of minutes, seconds? But we remind ourselves that the deterioration of body and mind that is inevitable with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis was not something our mother withstood -- and for that, we are grateful. She, in a sleepy haze of routine post-chemo weakness, asked for her son, and then with her last breath uttered the name of the man she had loved fiercely and definitively since she was 24 years old. “Shah Gee,” she whispered to my aunt who was with her. “Shah Gee,” she said again before closing her eyes for the last time. And Shah Gee, my father, a man still seeking his magnum opus, a man who has loved his family thoroughly in his own way, but who has also worshipped his work, was on his way to Karachi airport after packing up his shoot for the day to fly to Lahore, planning to surprise his ill wife by appearing on her doorstep with his disarming smile, which is all she ever wanted. And this one time, fate betrayed my otherwise fortunate father as he rushed to the terminal and received my aunt’s call. My aunt placed the phone next to my mother’s ear, but she was already soaring to her final journey, her eyes quietly closed, not a sound emerging from her lips.

Later, I saw my father and it struck me how I have never seen him this way before -- sort of unformed, raw around the edges, crumpled, sagging like a balloon slowly losing air through an invisible leak. Perhaps I never fully appreciated before the depth of friendship and love that existed between my parents despite their many, many differences. When my mother chided me in life, “You do not understand,” she was right. I didn’t. I still don’t. An inexplicable bond held them to each other, holds them to each other still -- the constituents of it I still haven’t been able to parse out completely -- love, trust, honesty, children -- these are superficial and common details. Seeing my father now, I realize what I never realized in my mother’s life, what I never saw in her pain and heartbreak when she faced the biggest betrayal of her life from my father and yet continued to love him with the untamed devotion of a dervish. Seeing in my father’s face his aberrant heart sinking and rising, his breath catching in his throat, his words deteriorating as they emerge from his mouth, I see not mere love, but almost a spiritual awakening. He may have been just as devoted to my mother all her life (although popular Pakistani press and anyone who has a mouth will disagree), but his face now holds a grave pall of the responsibility to carry all that she left behind. Her love, her pain, her loyalty, her fidelity, her existence -- seem to have concentrated in her last utterance of his name and sublimated to reach him, take hold of him, possess him. I know he will never stop mourning her just as I know I am their daughter. It is a fact of life.

She would smile now, if she could see us weary and wretched here without her. “I told you so,” she’d say. “I told you so.”


The Dissection of Grief - II

I have lately become very interested in our capacity and ability to cope with grief. There is an expression in Urdu that very aptly describes the feeling one has -- repetitively -- when one experiences loss. It literally translates into, “My heart is drowning. Mera dil doob raha hai. This is so accurate when one is dealing with grief. The chest feels laden, air is inhaled in large gulps, and there is this acute sensation of not having one’s bearing in the world, sinking.

Even immediately after experiencing a tragic loss, after drowning over and over, your body achieves homeostasis. You gravitate towards liquids at the very least to satiate your thirst even if your stomach will not accept solid food just yet. That, too, may be a physical manifestation of the psychology of grief. How can I eat to sustain my life when my loved one can no longer do so? It feels like a betrayal. And yet, food monopolizes the healing process. The bereaved family’s fridge fills up. Their counter-top is never clear. Someone is always bustling in the kitchen. “You must keep your strength up,” one hears. “You need to eat.” And despite the grief, despite the absence of appetite, one relents. One swallows a morsel after another until one’s heart leaps and sinks again, drowns again, survives again.

Beyond the immediate aftermath of a loss, however, grief evolves differently for individuals. We all deal with loss uniquely, we process tragedy in our own way, we heal on different timelines. Some people may like to talk about their loss. Others retreat into silence and introspection. Writers might experience a sudden burst of cathartic expression, or a deep freeze of it instead. Gradually, though, the bereaved begin to plateau and mirror each others’ level of grief peppered with some particular peaks and valleys. What happens then? What happens during this plateau stage, because we hear over and over that grief doesn’t truly go away. It lurks. It blossoms and withers, but never disappears.

A case study for such a plateau period of grief is a happy occasion. How do the bereaved prepare themselves to feel happiness fully while also acknowledging their deep loss? Perhaps my view is biased because I am leveraging my own experience of having grieved and subsequently compartmentalized it to experience joy, but this is what’s true for me. The absence of the dead becomes a real, palpable entity. The void left by your loved one is there alongside you in that happiness. It is as though the person is gone, but this empty space is a living thing, a proxy, just as real as one’s hands clapping, as real as the palms slapping against each other, as real as the sound that results from this action. And this post-grief happiness is a fragile thing. One needs to nurture it like a fledgling bird, take it under one’s wings, give it the room and security to grow, or it will never thrive. But one also has this sense of the absence -- the very real absence -- encouraging the post-grief happiness, permitting it, and dare I say, blessing it.

And yet, the heart drowns at unexpected moments, maybe even in the infinitesimal silence between the clapping of one’s hands. It drowns and emerges again. And one braces oneself for the sinking, which will inevitably come when one least expects it.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

The Dissection of Grief

It laps up against you in waves. At the beginning, the tide is so strong, you fear you'll lose your footing and be carried away. Then, slowly, you feel the waves begin to break against rocks before reaching you, licking your ankles, and receding, a temperate reminder of the absence of land. It encumbers you, clings to you like wet clothes, weighing you down, or like cobwebs that you keep stripping from your hair, from your eyelashes, from your fingertips, trying to reach back, back, back, to make amends, if only, if only, if only. You think of it proportionally. You try to appropriate it. You try to contain it. More than anything, you try to comprehend it, but understanding eludes you. Your thoughts are carried into small whirlpools of confusion by strong downdrafts, away, away, away. 

Sometimes you forget. Especially in the morning, or when you are occupied by the all-consuming job of simply living day to day to day. Remembrance spreads slowly through you, from the center outwards, like an ice cube melting, shrinking and expanding at the same time, creating a rivulet on a previously dry surface. 

It doesn't ever disappear. It mellows and swells, swells and mellows, and you begin to have a strange respect for it, an appreciation, because it is bigger than you, the person experiencing it, and it holds so much of the person you are mourning, the one who is gone, and yet continues to exist in this small bubble of your grief. 

Photo by Rebecca McCue

Haye, Peshawar

My immediate expression of grief is the Urdu word haye delivered in varying intonations. I say it without thinking, without even paying attention to my reaction. It has escaped my lips so many times over the past two days, haye, haye, haye...

Haye (Urdu), most closely meaning "alack," an expression of regret or dismay.

Haye, haye, haye...

The most haunting memory of my childhood is of being awakened by my mother's screams, "Haye, haye, haye, haye, Guriya, haye, Guriya," after learning of her sister Guriya's sudden death, and of the aftermath: Her restrained sobs late into the night, her voice hoarse from screaming out her grief, her broken whispers grazing my five-year-old ears, "Haye, Guriya, haye, Guriya..."

Haye. Grief brims from this expression. With each utterance, grief grows bigger rather than diminishing, it balloons and consumes the mourner. To the aggrieved, who is gutted by his loss, this expression becomes a tether to life, two syllables holding fast a fractured reality.

What can you say about a loss of this magnitude? But even the word "loss" is misused here. It is not a loss. It is thievery. Loss implies carelessness, as though it were equivalent to misplacing your keys. This is a robbery of 141 lives. And what kind of cognitive dissonance must the aftermath bear? A mother's body betraying her every day, her eyes opening at the same time every morning with the intention of sending her child to school, and then the reality washing over her like winter rain - no more, no more, no more, haye, haye, haye. Does her voice betray her when she calls the child's name in the empty house at dinner time? How many ways does she remember her child? Photographs, dirty laundry, pens and pencils scattered on a desk, books strewn across a room, the screensaver on her laptop of smiling faces, the child's last Facebook post, maybe, "Tomorrow I will...." No tomorrow, no tomorrow, no tomorrow, haye, haye, haye.

Can you imagine, we say to each other, young mothers seeing our toddlers coloring and rolling out soft balls of play-doh with their chubby hands. Haye, those mothers, we say. Haye, Peshawar, we say. Can you imagine? The answer, quite clearly, is no. No, we cannot imagine. It is unfolding in front of our eyes, but we cannot imagine, because how could we? How could we, really, imagine those chubby hands never moving again? How could we ever imagine not hearing that sweet voice? How could we imagine not holding our babies? Could those mothers imagine this? No, and yet they are living through it. What they cannot imagine now perhaps is continuing to live in this new vacuum, leading an altered life in which the child in not present. And no matter how much we grieve for the parents and for those who were robbed from their families, we cannot truly imagine the depths of terror and pain reverberating through Peshawar right now. 

Years after my aunt's death, my mother was rolling out dough to make chapaatis. We were talking about families. I said, "Isn't it great that we are three sisters and you are three sisters, too?" She was quiet for a few moments. Her rolling pin faltered in its strokes and her face began to break along the lips. "We were four," she said. "We were four." 

Grief, when it enters your life, does not ever leave it. 

Please. Pray for Peshawar. Share their grief. Donate to education.

Carpe Diem

Why is it that certain memories anchor you to your reality, and there are others that wash away seemingly without reason? I have forgotten people and time periods of my life. My sisters ask me sometimes, "Do you remember Bilal Uncle?" And my first reaction is, "Who?" And gradually they help me piece an image together. A young man, my father's friend. Peacocks in the vast garden of the hotel where they used to meet for afternoon tea, scones for the adults, ice cream for us girls. Is this memory real or invented or salvaged, I wonder. Do I really remember him, or is he like the character of a movie, and my sisters the screenplay writers who have brought him to life? Yet, there are the briefest of moments that have stayed so fresh in my memory that I remember the tiniest details: the single blade of sunlight falling over a sleeping baby's eyes, the rippling of my grandmother's chenille duvet between my fingers, the silhouette of my aunt when I last saw her alive - I was just 5 years old, and she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen - that last time I saw her opening the heavy wooden kitchen door, wearing an orange kurta, her curly hair pinned back at the nape of her neck - just this image of her, and then - my mother's ragged shrieks waking me up from a deep sleep, our drive through wild monsoon rain to Sialkot, people gathered outside my grandparents' home, adults dissolving into screams of shock and grief, and my aunt's sallow face absent of life, the white shroud, the cotton balls tucked into her nostrils, my mother nowhere to be found, my mother, my mother, my mother, the panic, until I saw her collapsing near her dead sister's charpoy... 

Children should not be allowed to witness bereavement.

And why do I speak of memory now, so soon after remembering the darling Mrs. Khan who is with us no more? Many people reached out to me via the blog and Facebook to tell me how much the entry meant to them. They told me it made them remember the magic of Mrs. Khan. Some said it was like I was telling their story. She saw them when no one else did. Some told me that I have a very good memory - to which my immediate response is, "But I don't." And yet, there she stands, a pillar in my memory, strong, hilarious, full of happiness and compassion. You couldn't help but smile in her presence. I have established already that I had my bouts of introspection in school. My mind would wander off in the middle of classes. My closest friends dubbed me "Dreamy Noor," but Mrs. Khan had a way of snapping me out of my best reveries. She commanded attention, often with a joke, but sometimes simply with her presence. What a miraculous woman!

And my memory keeps bringing my beloved teacher back to me now in the wake of her death - in my dreams, in my thoughts, in my midday reveries that no one snaps me out of. From the outpouring of grief, but also that of wonderful, beautiful, happy memories that her students are sharing on the Facebook page in her memory, I can tell that she lives on in our collective memories. Every single student says the same thing - something along the lines of, "She made me who I am." Many insist they were her favorite. Can we even begin to articulate such a person's generosity and kindness who made so many people feel special at the same time? It's maddening if you think about it - I worry with 5 guests in my house that 4 of them will probably go home feeling unappreciated and ignored. Can you imagine making so many young people feel like they matter? Like what they've got to say is important? Making them realize that they can do anything? Be anything? This woman had super powers! She would have liked this compliment - I am smiling right now as I think about how she might have reacted to this.

With all the wonderful memories of Mrs. Khan being shared on social media, there is also this underlying wrinkle of regret getting fractured by the hour, expanding, swelling, "I should have stayed in touch with her." "I should have called her." "I should have given her a hug." I said to a friend that visiting her was on my Lahore Bucket List. I was planning to meet her when I visit my family in Lahore this winter after 12 years of being in California. I see this corollary of celebrating Mrs. Khan's life and her spirit along with harboring so much regret for not telling her what she meant to us (her students) engulfing every grieved heart, and it resonates very strongly with me.

Perhaps we should learn - Mrs. Khan may be teaching us an important lesson, still. Seize the day! I am in California and have been for over a decade, but what kind of excuse is that? I could have tracked down her email address with minimal effort, and I should have. But I never factored either of us dying into the equation of me eventually getting in touch with her. We never factor in death, do we? Tell the people who matter to you that they matter to you. That they matter. Like she told us every single time not in so many words maybe, but by listening, by giving, by laughing, by loving. Go give your teacher a hug. Tell your sister you're sorry, the fight you had really was completely stupid. Mend your differences with your parents. Tell your best friend you're sorry you don't call often, but you love her. Tell your husband, your wife, your child. Tell them because they matter and you never know when you may no longer have the privilege to do so.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Remedy for a Broken Heart

Human beings are flawed at best and wicked at worst. This means that one expected outcome of even the most well-intended interactions is the potential of causing injury to the sensibilities of at least one party involved. More often than not, however, relationships that begin with promises of love and friendship morph dismally into purposefully malicious and hurtful interactions, orchestrated by at least one person in the relationship, and often both. This results in some hearts that are - for a time, at least - proverbially broken.

The best remedy for a broken heart, I find, is a strange amalgamation if things. The company of friends who know when to let you cry and when to ask you to pull yourself together, long solitary walks, books that make you think, movies that don't, comfort food in a warm, familiar kitchen, cooking and baking - I find that the kitchen becomes a place of solace, acceptance, and catharsis when I am nursing my broken heart. And so, I end up spending a lot of time polishing the glassware and silverware, baking elaborate cakes, cooking delicacies that take several hours to prepare, and somehow with the help of friends and filler activities mentioned above, I find that the heart, broken but resilient, mends itself.

It is definitely easier to realize as you grow older that no matter how impossible it may seem, the broken heart will, in fact, heal . First of all, you cry less at 28 as opposed to 18. Whereas 10 years ago, I would have cried dramatically for several days, now I only cry for a few minutes and get on with my life. Maybe this control over my faculties comes from knowing that no one thing or person deserves the kind of effort that is expended in crying, the brutal force of it, the headache that follows, the overwhelming self-pity and sadness. The other thing to realize also - and I know this may not apply in all cases, but is common enough that it deserves to be mentioned - is that more often than not, the person who breaks your heart is being cruel for the sake of being cruel. The person who breaks your heart is actually trying to make you hurt, unravel you, peel you back like layers of an onion, expose you, bring you to your knees, make you weak, weep, wail, react.

Once you gain this perspective, it is remarkably easy to not let anyone exercise that kind of influence over your heart. It gives you the strength to allow your heart to break in a resolute silence - you know, after all, that there will be plenty of time to pick up the pieces later. Whereas love, by way of its colloquial definition, makes you strong, the act of inflicting someone with heartbreak is the opposite: It is (not always, but most of the time) a deliberate and arguably cold-blooded initiative to strip you (the victim) of every last reserve of strength you have worked so hard to build.

I, in my exquisite stubbornness and intricate melancholy, do not give people the satisfaction of having wronged me. Contrary to what I have read about heartbreak, I maintain that pride is probably the easiest entity to salvage in the carnage of such a situation. As I have mentioned above, there are certain steps you can take, like not reacting, maintaining an icy silence, et cetera, to preserve your pride. What is entirely unsalvageable in matters of the heart that end badly, is trust. I would argue that you are not necessarily reeling from the shock of hurtful words and actions that have made your heart implode, but from the underlying betrayal, which brings the bulk of negativity back to the self: "How could I be so stupid?" "How did I not realize this?" "How did I let this happen?" "Why did I make myself go through this?" Et cetera. It's the betrayal, cold and sharp as a blade, that delivers the final blow, that annihilates any last remnant or semblance of being whole.

And now what? The heart is, as established, unfortunately and decidedly broken. You have agonized over the culprit behind the heinous act, you have recognized your strengths, and harbored your weaknesses. Now begins the long but finite journey of putting the pieces back together. It's time to heal and mend and laugh again. So, for me, this part involves comfort and writing and cuddling with my baby girl. Lots of cooking and baking. Reading. Doing good things with good people.

What does the road to a mended heart look like for you?

Photos by Rebecca McCue

A Poem for Peshawar

Peshawar 2013

let me show you the cost of worship:

a man, with his eyes closed, arms splayed
as if embracing the carnage around him,
another man's hand on his back,
mayhem, comfort

five rescue workers carrying a girl on a charpoy,
rubber flip-flops, one dangling from her foot,
about to fall off,
her bright yellow shalwar with a floral print,
basant, kites                                       dead? alive?
a woman sitting on the ground,
hands clasped, head bent low,
meditative, almost,
a crimson stain on her shoulder, blooming,
a full-mouthed lily, an inkblot
another woman wailing, walking toward the first,
her reaching palm, an effigy in midair,
grief immortalized in the contortion of her face,
kith? kin?
a row of five plain oak coffins,
mercifully closed,
a hand resting on the lid,
precious cargo,
78 dead, over a hundred injured,
death toll climbing, climbing, they say,
like a vine it grows,
no photos of children, yet
no children, please, god, please,
no more, no more

Half a Goodbye

I wonder if it is a kindness or a punishment of fate that the south-facing window of my aunt's house in Old Lahore opens into the graveyard where her son is buried. I imagine her standing for hours on her frail legs, her small frame wrapped in a shawl, next to that window, looking upon his grave. As my cousin's illness ate him up by degrees,  his mother was certain he was going to die even on good days. She didn't understand the biology behind the Hep C that wasted away her son's liver, but she knew he would not get better. She had learned it in her dreams. 

We had been close as children, my cousin and I, but I don't remember that time well. We drifted apart as we became teenagers, the five-year gap in our ages accentuating our differences as individuals. When I think back to our shared childhoods, I only recall images and sounds. His big grin. His hoarse voice. A song he liked to sing. His beautiful penmanship on a small chalkboard in my house, in a long letter, the only one he ever wrote me. I wish I had saved it.

I have learned that in his last days, his younger brother showed him pictures of my family on Facebook. I have learned that he saw my daughter and said to his mother, "Ammi, how beautiful is this little girl!" But he said it in Punjabi, so it sounded sweeter, more like him, and it hit me like a slap. Ammi, aeh kinni sohni aey. I wish selfishly that my aunt had picked up the phone then and called me. I wish selfishly that I had talked to him, said goodbye. I wish selfishly that I had known more about his illness than the vague, blanket statement, "He's sick." When you learn someone is sick, after all, you expect them to get better. You don't expect to get a g-chat message from your sister when you are in your office and have no choice but to remain entirely composed, saying, "Did you hear about Jugnoo Bhai?" And you certainly don't expect your shocked response to be whispered into your palms as they cover your face, "You silly boy," as if he had simply made a mistake and could undo it with your admonishment. 

I have felt weary after his death, like I have been angry and resentful too long because of things and people that don't really matter. When I mourn him, I also mourn my childhood, that sense of being safe, one that he probably had for only a handful of years. He had to grow up really fast. I did, too, but I had more good years of happiness, and so I fared better. When I feel the pull of Lahore now, resurrected in the wake of my cousin's death, I don't miss the city proper at all. I dream about Old Lahore - the narrow alleys and streets of the neighborhood where my father grew up. The tomb of the saint, the darbar, lights strung over the dome like an army of glowing fireflies in the night for the annual Urs, next to the huge pre-partition stone building that was my grandfather's family house, divided into several enclaves for his brothers and their children, the hand-pump in the middle of the verandah, curious faces in those windows... There will be different faces now, some absent, some aged. 

When I go back home now, it will be a journey to connect the dots, trace my way back to my roots to claim them. I will go into the house my grandfather and my father shared with their family. I will walk into my aunt's annex, look upon the saint's tomb and the graveyard that encircles it from the south-facing window of her small apartment. I will see names that I recognize on the gravestones. It will be a fitting homecoming, a lasting goodbye.

Photos from the Facebook page of Hazrat Shah Abul Muali